Discussing Free Speech at Universities on TalkRADIO with Patrick Christys

Yesterday lunchtime I was invited back onto TalkRADIO to discuss free speech. [previously] This time my host was Patrick Cristys and the topic of discussion was the government’s bizarre plan to enforce free speech at universities.

My take:

  • Trying to guarantee free speech by fining universities for No Platforming speakers is itself draconian. The ‘spirit’ of free speech cannot be instilled by the threat of prosecution. I likened it to a bad party, where the host forces us to have fun by insisting we all play a tedious ‘ice breaker’.
  • There are already laws to guarantee free speech at universities. The Education Act (No. 2) 1986 tasks higher education institutions with ensuring free speech within the law:

Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.

Education Act (No.2) 1986, s.43
  • There are also laws designed to limit freedom of expression on campus. One aspect of the PREVENT strategy is that it requires university lecturers to report their students to the authorities if they suspect that those students are reading or saying anything that could be considered ‘extremist.’ This is not conducive to free speech and is an order of magnitude more serious than No Platforming or ‘cancel culture’ because it involves the criminal law. It is unclear how the new proposals will interact with the existing counter-extremism framework. One suspects that the government haven’t properly thought about it.
  • We all have No Platform policies in our own houses. Universities may feel like public squares, but in a legal sense they are private property and in many cases, they are also students’ term-time homes. Why shouldn’t the Students’ Unions, who are democratically elected to administer those spaces, make the decision on who should be invited to speak?
  • University administrations are already notoriously risk-averse. The likely effect of this policy will be to limit the exposure to possible fines for No Platforming, by making it much more difficult to invite anyone at all to speak on campus. The proposed policy is very likely to backfire and result in less speech.
  • The problem of No Platforming is not really a problem. A recently published House of Commons briefing paper reminds us that the cancellation of events involving external speakers is incredibly rare. This chimes with a report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights which found that the scale of the problem is wildly overblown.
  • The government is eroding free speech rights in other ways. This week it also published a draft bill on Online Safety, seeking to regulate social media companies. It seeks to impose a ‘duty of care’ on content providers and platforms, to prevent harm to vulnerable people. Its highly likely that this will result in the tech companies deploying imperfect AI and algorithms in the hope of filtering harmful content, and that a great deal of valuable, lawful speech will be censored as a result.

Don’t get me wrong: I think students should embrace the ‘spirit’ of free speech and that controversial speakers should be debated. Such openness can ensure that our own opinions do not degenerate into dogma, and it also prevents the creation of ‘free speech martyrs.’

But such a spirit cannot be imposed by dictat nor by the imposition of fines. That would itself be deeply illiberal and counter-productive. The government’s proposals look like gesture politics. A salvo in the culture war rather than a genuine attempt to improve the public discourse.

You can listen to my conversation with Patrick Christys on SoundCloud or via the embedded player below. For some reason I cannot explain, my telephone line was pretty bad, but I’m just about audible.

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